On the Ethics of Separating Art from Artists

With Kanye West’s latest album release, what do listeners make of his new image and how do they reconcile  good art from artists who make bad decisions?

“You’re my number one, with the lemonade,” is the lyric that makes Earl Warren College senior Kaitlyn Campbell laugh when listening to “Closed on Sunday” off Kanye West’s latest album, “Jesus is King.” “Wow, this really is about Jesus isn’t it?” she states.

“Jesus is King,” released on Friday Oct. 25, is West’s ninth consecutive album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 charts — a record he shares with Eminem. The highly-anticipated album delivers its gospel promises, and it arrives at the finish of West’s weekly Sunday service tour, the invite-only festival gathering in which West plays gospel renditions of his early songs. The new album starkly contrasts previous work of the 21-time Grammy winner. This change is especially notable in comparison to his sixth album, “Yeezus, which featured a controversial song called “I am a God,” in which West claims have the status of a god himself.

Incorporating religious themes into his work is nothing new for West. It was early in his career with “The College Dropout” and “Late Registration” albums that he set an image for himself as the rapper who would bring the church to the club. His faith-based hit single “Jesus Walks” song off “The College Dropout” album makes obvious religious references in lyrics such as “God show me the way because the Devil’s tryna break me down,” all rapped to a mid-tempo beat and drum and choir backdrop. This song in particular was commentary on the theme of struggle both in American society through forms of racism and terrorism as well as struggle within ourselves. This was an artistic decision notably meant to contrast the more common themes in hip-hop of sex and violence. West takes this issue head-on singing, “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?” 

West since then would maintain themes of Christianity in his career but not in the way many would expect. Instead of following the way of God, it appeared West took on a new interpretation and found Jesus in himself, literally. It was shortly after his 2005 Grammy win for Best Rap Song for “Jesus Walks” that West would appear on a Rolling Stones cover adorned with a crown of thorns, an image described as the “Passion of Kanye West.” 

Fast forward to 2013 after “Graduation,” “80s & Heartbreak” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” comes West’s sixth album “Yeezus.” This would be a major era where West would take religious appropriation to a whole new level. More than just producing songs like “I am a God,” the rapper would maintain an egotistical image such as revealed in an interview with W magazine: “I made that song because I am a god … I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend s—. That s— is rock ‘n’ roll, man. That s— is rap music. I am a god. Now what?”

Whether such an elaborate persona was in earnest, or to gain publicity for his footwear business, West in his “Yeezus” album years was still popular despite the artist’s previous controversies. He was as famous as ever. The surprise comes from not just the themes of his latest album but his new approach to Christianity. It appears that there is room for praising more than just “Yeezus.” For fans, does his return to religiosity mean some sort of atonement for previous mistakes? Or is it a distraction to keep producing sales under a new guise? Or perhaps, is it that despite whatever West does, his die-hard fans are still loyal. 

These questions tie to the greater, all-too-familiar theme of powerful and influential artists doing outrageous and controversial stunts that leave their audience members uncertain of the validity of their art. Many old fans often struggle to cope with the musician’s sudden image change, sometimes either turning to “cancel culture” or choosing to remain unconditional fans, nonetheless. The only way for mid-ground fans to combat the onslaught of “cancel culture” — the social practice of reneging support for public figures due to their problematic behavior — against such beloved artists is to simply “separate the art from artist.”

With West’s new religious image, what changes for fans and what does this mean today? From his 2009 intrusion on Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at MTV’s Video Music Awards to tweeting “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!,” West has been very productive at alienating some of his listeners. 

Other documentation of his outrageous behavior includes his released song “Famous” off his “The Life of Pablo” album, prolonging the public drama he had with Taylor Swift. Over the years, the two artists had gone back and forth on their relationship as friends or public enemies, but this all erupted when West released the “Famous” lyrics, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Swift had denied she gave West permission to use the lyrics, but was later discredited in a stream of Snapchat videos revealed by West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, over a phone call between the two artists discussing the song. The music video itself featured nude wax figures of celebrities of not just Swift but also the aforementioned “innocent” Bill Cosby, George W. Bush, Anna Wintour, and Caitlyn Jenner, among others. 

What might have been the most divisive factor for fans is West’s support for President Donald Trump. During his “Saint Pablo Tour,” which was already suffering criticisms due to his rants and tirades during live shows, West revealed that if he had voted during the 2016 presidential election, his vote would have gone to Trump. The tour was eventually cut short and The New York Times reported that the artist was later hospitalized due to a psychiatric emergency.

Later opening up about this incident, West had made it a well-known point that he suffered from a mental illness, eventually pasting the words “I hate being Bi-Polar, its awesome” onto the cover of his album “Ye.” Many took West’s decision to vocalize his struggles with mental health as a chance to decrease the stigma around bipolar disorder and mental health, especially in the black community. In his 2018 interview with “Breakfast Club” radio host Charlamagne Tha God, West had commented on wanting to “take the stigma off the word ‘crazy’” and “change the stigma of mental health.” However, this all changed when it appeared West was tweeting about no longer taking his psychiatric medication because it hindered  his creative process. “I cannot be on meds and make Watch the Throne level or Dark Fantasy level music,” West tweeted, referring to his previous albums, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and a collaboration album with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne.” He eventually characterized it as a misdiagnosis altogether. Of this topic, Kiana Fitzgerald, a staff contributor for Complex, writes that “Not only did [West] make it more difficult for me to even talk about being bipolar anymore, he has now chosen to strip himself of the label altogether.” West’s new direction on the issue had upset many after creating so much buzz around his bipolar disorder and creating false hope on wanting to make changes about the culture surrounding mental illness.

Familiar dramatic episodes would happen later such as on West’s 2018 musical appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” Instead of offering a final performance, the rapper held the captive audience to listen to him deliver a pro-Trump speech while wearing the iconic red Make America Great Again baseball cap. West would later be found publicly visiting the President and having lunch with him. Such affiliation with the historically racially-insensitive figure had listeners question what West was doing for black people when supporting a leader who demonstrated little intention of serving the black community. 

The controversy took a nose-dive during West’s newsroom interview with TMZ in 2018. West had commented “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” The rapper received intense backlash for his statement including from TMZ’s own Van Lathan. “While you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives,” Lathan said. “We have to deal with the marginalization that has come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice.” Though immediately after the comment West admitted he was taking opioids before the interview, which some took as the reason he would make such a controversial statement, many took his words as unacceptable and lead to West’s public condemnation by several black cultural figures. Musician will.i.am said it was “one of the most ignorant statements that anybody who came from the hood could ever say about their ancestors.” Director Spike Lee had encouraged West to “WAKE UP” on Instagram. The controversy, however, did not seem to do much damage to the rapper’s clothing brand sales. Shockingly for some, Adidas remained with the Yeezy shoe brand even after West’s comment on slavery. And although Adidas did not reveal any sales data during that time, the Yeezy brand was ranked ninth of the “hottest brands” according to Business of Fashion magazine.

West even later apologized for his comments on slavery on the air of 107.5 WGCI in his hometown of Chicago, stating, “I don’t know if I properly apologized for how that slave comment made people feel, so I want to take this moment right now to say that I’m sorry for hurting, I’m sorry for the one-two effect of the MAGA hat into the slave comment.” His emotional response appeared to make the issue fizzle out of the spotlight with the promise to be better. But the particular act done in the first place was nonetheless disappointing.

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This pattern of controversies that are met without much punishment when handled with the right amount of PR control can be seen with many male artists across the hip-hop industry. Take Chris Brown’s abuse against Rihanna, or Drake’s allegedly touchy behavior with younger girls. Both instances, which are only two examples limited to  the confines of the hip-hop world, are exemplars of unacceptable behavior. This is especially contentious when considering the #MeToo era where sexual assault and sexual harrassment are being sytematically combatted to end the mistreatment. But what is so abhorrently common is how these artists still survive. Though it may depend on the magnitude of the act committed and the publicity of the deed, their careers appear to be hardly damaged. There may have been temporary setbacks in sales, but these artists still stay at the top of music charts and gain publicity. They even collaborate on musical projects with each other.

So how do people reconcile with listening to good art made by questionable people? Choosing to ignore the fact that some of these artists have done rather atrocious things is a bit naive. But also, “cancelling” entire artists or genres can be overkill. Other people wonder, “What’s the big deal?”

“Kanye is still one of the biggest influences in hip-hop of all time,” Thurgood Marshall College junior Anna Brown said. “You can’t just disregard that. No matter what, he’s important and … he’s made mistakes in his life but it’s not like it’s solely what he promotes in his music.” 

Some fans will easily defend questionable artists based on their groundbreaking achievements. In line with Brown’s reasoning, West positively changed the landscape of hip-hop music forever, and his personal mistakes or choices should not erase his achievement. When making judgements on an artist’s character, perhaps we should take a more holistic approach and consider their stronger attributes. Others disagree.

“You really can’t [separate the art from the artist],” Marshall College senior Michael Gomez said. “When you listen to them, the art is part of their ideas, it’s part of them. You are also contributing to their success.” 

It may be for some that there is no way to think about the art and artist as different entities. Such as in the case for Gomez, the artist’s business is an extension of the artist and thus, if the artist is someone to no longer condone, then the art should suffer as well.

From both sides, there seems to be an understanding that the complete separation may not be feasible. It may be that one mistake, or even several, may not wholly determine the artist’s character. Additionally, choosing to consume art from questionable artists does not always mean approval of their harmful actions; it might simply demonstrate an appreciation for the art itself. 

There is an implication that both consumption and appreciation may be a different story. One can argue that our consumption of music does not change much about the ethics of an artist’s behavior. As a  form of punishing the artist, we may tune out to personally contribute to falling sales, but that’s about it. Opposingly, we can still consider how a listener can contribute to a culture of the artist, or that consumption of the art holds some meaning on how we may condone the behaviors of the artist. However, consumption does not entirely mean approval. As often as we hear overbearing denunciations of any form of partaking in a problematic artist’s success, it ignores the fact that people are more complicated than that. 

We can, for one, shame people as much as we like for liking problematic artists and contributing to their success, but that would require fully understanding the artists whose art which we consume. This is not always possible, or even desirable, as many people are not invested enough to research the matter. We can also ignore any atrocious behavior of artists. However, this is hardly justified and says something about how we allow exceptions for moral boundaries merely based on aesthetics.

Perhaps the best we can do is at least pay attention. That is, pay attention to how we are to consume art, and who it is coming from, but most importantly pay attention to what we make of it. 

There is no moral high ground when it comes to finding out who is an appropriate artist and who is an inappropriate artist. Completely separating the art from the artist is virtually impossible. But not being able to separate the art and artist does not mean one is unethical or one is absolutely condoning every choice ever made by an artist. It can just mean someone is listening to a song, and are taking it up to themselves to choose how they experience it. 

West, along with other problematic artists, can be perceived as more than just his missteps. Celebrities and figures in the public eye who make those mistakes, however, must also realize the consequences of those actions. Who is to judge?

Today, we can judge what West is doing to change the hip-hop game with gospel. While this is not particularly new for the hip-hop genre —  artists who have been around for some time like Lecrae, KB, and Trip Lee have worked to change hip-hop on their own terms as well — this is definitely a change for the Chicago-based rapper.

“From what I’ve heard on the track, it really is theologically sound,” Campus church member Kyle Vo, who has been studying Christian theology his whole life, said. “I’m surprised. I am a little familiar about his drama but this is a huge turnaround. It’s different.”

West’s “Jesus is King” is available on iTunes, Spotify, and most places where you get your music, but you probably already knew that if you were interested. And could not care less otherwise.

All interview subjects requested to appear under pseudonyms.
Image from NBC by Dimitrios Kambouris.

2 thoughts on “On the Ethics of Separating Art from Artists

  1. —-Many took West’s decision to vocalize his struggles with mental health as a chance to decrease the stigma

    OK , you have been taught to say there is a stigma connected with mental health issues. Can you overcome the lesson?

    Someone has suggested to you “decreasing” it. Keeping how much?

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